Computing the future

Author: Adam Conner-Simons | CSAIL

As part of the public launch of the Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, MIT hosted a special fireside chat Wednesday, Feb.27, at Kresge Auditorium that brought together six MIT professors who have received the Association for Computing Machinery’s esteemed A.M. Turing Award, often described as “the Nobel Prize for computing.”

Moderated by Professor Daniela Rus, director of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), the conversation included Tim Berners-Lee, the 3Com Founders Professor of Engineering; Shafi Goldwasser, the RSA Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Butler Lampson, technical fellow at the Microsoft Corporation and adjunct professor of computer science at MIT; Barbara Liskov, Institute Professor; Ronald Rivest, Institute Professor; and Michael Stonebraker, CTO of Paradigm4 and of Tamr Inc. and adjunct professor of computer science at MIT. (Other MIT Turing Award winners include Professor Silvio Micali, Professor Emeritus Fernando “Corby” Corbato, and the late Professor Marvin Minsky.)

Rus first briefly highlighted the accomplishments of the Turing winners, from Lampson’s contributions to the growth of personal computers to how Berners-Lee and Rivest’s work has fundamentally transformed global commerce.

“Imagine what the world would be like without these achievements in AI, databases, cryptography, and more,” said Rus. “Just try to imagine a day without the World Wide Web and all that it enables — no online news, no electronic transactions, no social media.”

Coming off less as a panel than a casual conversation among friends, the wide-ranging dialogue reflected the CSAIL colleagues’ infectious enthusiasm for each other’s work. One theme was the serendipity of computer science and how often the panelists’ breakthroughs in one area of research ended up having major impacts in other, completely unexpected domains. For example, Goldwasser discussed her work on zero-knowledge proofs and their use in fields such as cloud computing and machine learning that didn’t even exist when she and Micali first dreamed them up. Rivest later joked that the thriving study of quantum computing has been largely driven by the desire to “break” his RSA (named for Rivest-Shamir-Adelman) encryption algorithm.

With a broad lens looking toward the future, panelists also discussed how to create more connections between their work and topics such as climate change and brain research. Liskov cited medical technology, and how more effective data collection could allow doctors to spend less time on their computers and more time with patients. Lampson spoke of the importance of developing more specialized hardware, like Google has with its tensor processing unit.

Another recurring theme during the panel was a hope that the new college can also keep MIT at the center of the conversation about the potential adverse effects of computing technologies.

“The future of the field isn’t just building new functionality for the good, but thinking about how it can be abused,” Rivest said. “It will be crucially important to teach our students how to think more like adversaries.”

The group also reminisced on the letter they penned in the Tech student newspaper in 2017 calling for the creation of a computing school.

“Since we wrote that letter, the MIT administration has created a college and raised $1 billion for a new building and 50 professors,” said Stonebraker. “The fact that they’ve done this all from a standing start in 16 months is truly remarkable.”

The laureates agreed that one of MIT’s core goals should be to teach computational skills in a bidirectional way: that is, for MIT’s existing schools to inform the college’s direction, and for the college to also teach concepts of “computational thinking” that are more generalizable than any one programming language or algorithmic framework.

“I think we do a reasonable job of training computer scientists, but one mission of the college will be to teach the right kinds of computing skills to the rest of campus,” said Stonebraker. “One of the big challenges the new dean is going to face is how to organize all that.”

The panelists also reflected on MIT’s unique positioning to be able to continue to study tough “moonshot” problems in computing that require more than just incremental progress.

“As the world’s leading technological university, MIT has an obligation to lead the forefront of research rather than follow industry,” Goldwasser said. “What separates us from industrial product — and even from other research labs — is our ability to pursue basic research as a pure metric rather than for dollar signs.”

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